Alpha Protocol

Game Description: The year is 2009. Worldwide political tensions are at a breaking point when a commercial airliner is shot down by a U.S. missile over Eastern Europe, killing all aboard. The U.S. government claims no involvement, and dispatches Agent Michael Thorton to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. As the first modern day spy role-playing game, Alpha Protocol offers unprecedented control over the development of Thorton’s abilities and his interactions with other characters. Upgrade skills such as physical combat, weapons mastery, cutting-edge technology and even seduction as you grow in experience and complete missions.

Alpha Protocol Review

Lost in this Masquerade

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

HIGH Steven "Don't call me Steve" Heck.

LOW The '80s-themed boss fight against a knife-wielding cokehead who somehow is still talking after taking ten bullets in the face.

WTF Let me get this straight: a brilliant intelligence analyst lost track of his own daughter because she took her mother's maiden name?

The allure of role-playing a spy is almost undeniable. Suave and sharply dressed no matter the occasion, James Bond has been a hero to generations, aided by memorable villains with absurd plots for world domination. More recently, new-age spies like the relentless Jack Bauer or hyper-competent Jason Bourne have stolen the show, replacing wit and verve with martial arts and gunplay. It would be a thrill to imagine yourself as any one of these men. It is, however, somewhat less intriguing to contemplate the possibility of being all three at once. Yet, this seems to be Obsidian's aim in their espionage role-playing game Alpha Protocol, and they pursue this wrong-headed goal with a singular lack of competence.

In principle, the idea of a game where you can play as any kind of spy has a certain kind of attraction. The problem is that no story can be made by just one character: the plot, as well as his antagonists and allies, must support the main character. A Bond villain like Oddjob (or even a more grounded one like Le Chiffre) cannot be transplanted into an episode of 24; the result would be by turns laughable and disastrous. The internecine conflict between dour and abusive CIA agents, characteristic of the Bourne movies, would similarly feel completely inappropriate with James Bond in the starring role.

Alpha Protocol attempts to resolve this problem by throwing a little of everything into the plot, creating a grand wreck of a cast and story that manages to feel appropriate to the character being played less than a third of the time. What is the "professional" spy to make of '80s obsessed Konstantin Brayko? How does a "suave" spy fit into a world that holds the startlingly incompetent Omen Deng? The game's threadbare plot is pedestrian in its ideas and sloppy in its execution, but with enough effort these problems can be fixed. There is no level of effort that can address the more fundamental issue, however. No matter what sort of person the player chooses to make the main character Mike Thorton be, he will spend most of the game as an alien, a character who simply does not belong in the world he inhabits.

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

Even the process of constructing this persona has nothing to recommend it. Thorton's dialogue is eternally charmless, even when he is attempting to be suave. If his conversational ineptitude offends his interlocutors, there's no way to know it: their faces barely move. The dialogue sections of the game play out like a world where everyone is wearing a rubber mask. If the game didn't constantly indicate how my choices had affected other characters' opinions, there's no way I could assess them.

Of course, you spend comparatively little time actually talking. Most of the game's duration is bound up in action missions, where Thorton is even more plodding and useless than he is in conversation. I don't expect every videogame spy to rival Sam Fisher in acrobatic ability, but Thorton makes me look like an Olympic gymnast. At least I can climb through scaffolding or step over a k-rail. Thorton can only jump up or drop down at special action points; naturally these are always located at places that are convenient for the developers, even if they look no different from other spots. If a container is sitting on a flat surface I should be able to jump down from it anywhere, not just on the side that's facing a patrol.

Once Thorton is seen by that patrol, the combat system creaks into action. Gunplay is entirely unsatisfying; the perfectly steady reticule seemingly has no relationship with the destination of your bullets. Nor do the opposing AIs give the impression of solid work. Alpha Protocol's grunts have two tricks: lay back and hurl endless grenades (with pinpoint accuracy) or run up and try to punch Thorton. Yes, even if he's got a gun. Yes, even if they've got guns.

Lest you think that the poor construction of the AI is isolated in some way, allow me to assure you that this terrible execution infects every single level of the game, from the useless map and archaic save system right down to the constant pop-in (and pop-out!) of textures. Palm fronds clip through walls, and shadows on one floor bleed through to the ceiling of the floor below. Sometimes the game fails to realize you've reached an objective. Other times it won't let you interact with an action point. Even the plot leaves half a dozen threads dangling, as if nobody could be bothered to finish it. Perhaps they got distracted by shoehorning in all the double- and triple- crosses. When Thorton starts walking in some random direction under his own initiative, I understand why: he's trying to get out of this game.

I could go on like this for quite a while, if I thought it necessary. Alpha Protocol fails on multiple levels, from its completely inappropriate boss fights down to its absurd Looney Toons-style stealth creep. Nothing about this game suggests its makers have any acquaintance with sound design principles or even quality control. Flawed in its conception, impoverished in its design, and thoroughly inept in its execution, Alpha Protocol is an unmitigated disaster. Rating: 1.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug references, intense violence, sexual content, and strong language. The sex is very much PG fade-to-black stuff that shouldn't offend anyone who is generally aware that men and women sometimes sleep together. The violence is standard shooter stuff.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The conversations are subtitled and most of this text is clear and easy to read. All audio cues are supplemented by visual ones. With the occasional exception of trying to find an alarm box, deaf players should not be at a serious disadvantage.

Alpha Protocol Second Opinion

Stealth and Pistols, all the way

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

HIGH Unleashing my pistol's special attack and headshotting six goons at once.

LOW A lack of prompts making me miss the chance to rescue a main character.

WTF Punching is often more effective than shooting.

In his main review of Alpha Protocol, Sparky calls out a litany of things that are wrong with the game, and he's not wrong for doing so. It's an indisputable fact that the final product produced by Obsidian fell substantially short of expectations. So much so, in fact, that Sega wasted no time in announcing that there would be no possibility of a sequel thanks to poor critical response and equally poor sales. From any perspective, it is certainly fair to call this Espionage RPG a failure, but personally, I wouldn't call it a complete disaster—what occurs to me is that there are two distinct halves to the Alpha Protocol experience: the action side and the RPG side. While the action content is certainly what brought the game to its knees, I quite enjoyed the role-playing.

Looking first to the action, it's inexcusably clunky, awkward, and painfully archaic. While I can appreciate the attempts to blend RPG elements with real-time combat, Obsidian completely failed to create something that can be called acceptable by today's standards. In fact, the studio's CEO Feargus Urguhart has been quoted as saying that there were concerns about quality during development since the team had never attempted that type of gameplay before, and obviously, those concerns were well-founded. I could rattle off a list of at least a dozen things that are bad or broken here, but there's no point. The bottom line is that anyone coming to Alpha Protocol for the gunplay is going to be bitterly disappointed.

With the knowledge that the gameplay between cut-scenes is generally horrific save for a small handful of inspired sections, I can definitely say that the RPG aspect of the game is much stronger, and worth seeing for players who don't mind pushing through a little pain to get to the good stuff.

The thing that stood out most to me was that it genuinely felt as though Obsidian was trying to break new role-playing ground in a few different ways, and I'd say that they were mostly successful. For example, the game takes its espionage slant very seriously and spends a lot of time reinforcing the theme by providing plenty of e-mail, dossiers, and mission debriefings. It may sound a little dull to have so much reading at hand, but I actually found it to be quite engaging. Doing legwork before a mission and then discovering the fallout of my actions afterward gave each segment a feeling of weight and consequence that was quite appreciated, and as a result, the feeling of being a spy was well-communicated.

I loved the fact that not every mission devolved into combat. Certain segments like quietly infiltrating a yacht at sea or doing long-range surveillance through a sniper rifle's scope without ever firing a shot were real high points. I also got great satisfaction from the missions that were solely about talking. Simply having a conversation at times and building relationships with characters over the course of the game did more for its premise than any amount of sneaking or headshots could.

For players who enjoy the kind of decision-making and character interaction that can be found in games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, Alpha Protocol offers its own distinct spin that is certainly worth a look. While I admit that I wanted to put the game down and not come back during my first playthrough, I'm genuinely glad that friends convinced me to re-spec my character and give it another chance. (ProTip: go Stealth and Pistols, maxed out.)  By the time credits rolled and Mike "no N" Thorton completed his mission, I was actually tempted to go back and play through the game again, making different choices and forging new alliances.

It's a real shame that Obsidian wasn't able to deliver a level of action commensurate with the role-playing. Once I was able to see past all the warts, there was definitely something of value underneath, and if there ever was a game that deserved an improved sequel, it would be this one. Hopefully people in the industry will take note of the parts of Alpha Protocol that worked, and build on them through new titles in the future. If there's any justice in the world, Thorton's mission will not have been in vain. Rating: 5.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Women aren't vending machines: How video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

Or: Why I am dreading Alpha Protocol.

This post requires a bit of background. I highly recommend reading Thomas Macaulay Millar's essay "Toward a Performance Model of Sex", from the recently published anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. You can read the essay on Google book search. This post intends to look at video game relationships in the context of the two models Millar describes, so please read it if you have the time.

In short, Millar describes how society sees sex as a commodity, and argues that the commodity model—which enables rape, allows the concept of the "slut" to exist, and frames consent as "the absence of no", rather than "the presence of yes"—should be replaced by what he calls the performance model, where sex is seen as a collaborative effort between two equal participants, like two musicians playing a song together. In this excerpt he describes the commodity model:

We live in a culture where sex is not so much an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve. In this "commodity model," sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it. Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it's a transaction. This puts women in the position of seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper … Women are guardians of the tickets, men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women "give it up." men "get some."

The commodity model is shared by both the libertines and the prudes of our patriarchy. To the libertine, guys want to maximize their take of tickets. The prudes want women to keep the tickets to buy something really "important": the spouse, provider, protector.

(There is a LOT more to the piece, and it's fascinating and clear, so definitely read it.) To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, "Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?" And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.

There are so many things wrong with the "joke": it ignores the fact that the girlfriend likely enjoys sex, too, and that the guy also gets companionship, stability, love and attention out of the relationship, in addition to sex. It ignores the fact that theirs is a sexual and social partnership, not some kind of transaction or business arrangement. But the relevant part here is that the "joke" just doesn't work if the participants aren't invested in the commodity model of sex described by Millar.

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence—you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex—the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are "rewarded" with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result—the reward—of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, "Keep talking to me and eventually we'll have sex". The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC's thoughts and desires aren't relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Where the simplistic relationship mechanics really get problematic is when someone makes a game where your protagonist is a James Bond-wannabe and there's an achievement for sleeping with every woman in the game. I am talking, of course, about Alpha Protocol. The quotes in the linked MTV Multiplayer article are infuriatingly sexist (as well as displaying insultingly limiting definitions of masculinity), but the relevant part is the bit about the "Ladies' Man" achievement.

It is seriously problematic to have a game where the male player/avatar can have sex with any and every woman in the game. On top of reinforcing the commodity model of sex, it is desperately heteronormative. For all the player's "choice" of with whom to engage, there's no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don't exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man. In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar's essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, "select your responses wisely." It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won't sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests. (If I remember correctly, a counterexample may be The Sims, where often certain personalities just won't get along well enough to develop a relationship no matter how hard you try.)

So what can video games do to portray better relationships? For one, they can stop being so goddamn heteronormative and allow options for queer relationships. And secondly, designers can start thinking of sex as a collaborative performance between two equal partners, and romantic interests as actual human beings with lives and thoughts and preferences outside of where they intersect with the player, rather than as conquests. And everyone would do well to read Millar's essay!

Read more on the While !Finished blog.

Ebert, Alpha Protocol and a mystery game...

So Ebert issued another statement. I'm not going to bother linking to it since I don't want to give the guy anymore clicks than he's already getting, but basically he quasi-faux-recanted some of his earlier statements, although in essence what he's really saying is not that he's wrong about games never being able to be called art, but that he just shouldn't have said anything.

The way I see it, this isn't a "win" for games or gamers, it's just Ebert getting tired of dealing with the subject and backing away from it while proudly holding on to his self-imposed ignorance. I find it hard to believe that the statement was sincere in any meaningful way, especially since he insists that he has no desire to even try a video game despite having ample access to a console, games, and people willing to walk him through them.

I remain disappointed that someone I previously had so much respect for has taken the position he has.

Alpha  Protocol Screenshot

So, Alpha Protocol.

First off, big followup props to @DarthOdium and @ThiefOfHearts for convincing me to stick with the game. Thief made mention of his appreciation for the title several times, and since he is a smart dude who I respect, his comments gave me pause. Darth went one better with his incredibly detailed walkthrough and tips on how to level my character, and his advice was great.

At this point, I've erased my first character and started from scratch, completely re-speccing and changing my play style. I haven't finished the game yet, but I would estimate I'm about halfway. Perhaps a little more.

I'm still considering doing a second opinion review if time allows, but no promises there. In the meantime, my general thought is that the only way to really derive appreciation out of Alpha Protocol is to go Stealth all the way, and put a lot of points into the Pistol ability as well. Level design is still distastefully archaic and there are no end to the problems that occur during gameplay, but once main character Mike Thorton has enough experience under his belt, things almost sort of kind-of come together. At least, it becomes a lot easier to see what Obsidian was shooting for even if they still fell short.

I think the best experience I've had with the game so far took place on a level designed to be a yacht floating in the middle of the ocean. At this particular location, I was finally able to really take advantage of the stealth system and eliminated everyone on the boat without being detected, finding the target and completing my objective in a way that felt both sensible and empowering.

…Of course, the game promptly crapped itself by throwing a logic-defying boss at me immediately afterwards that was both overpowered and running on utterly broken AI.

I'm not going to say that Alpha Protocol is some kind of hidden gem or that my opinion of it has completely changed, but I will say that there are definitely short bursts of cleverness, and it's infinitely entertaining to pop out from behind some cover, activate the Pistol's special ability, and headshot three enemies while time stands still.

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

If there was ever a game that deserved to go back to the drawing board and return with a completely revamped sequel, Alpha Protocol would be it.

There's a particular game I'd really like to discuss at the moment, but out of respect for the person who hooked me up with it, I'm going to hold my tongue on specifics until the embargo clears. However, I think it's pretty safe to say that it's a hotly-anticipated sequel that's been getting quite a bit of coverage over the last few months.

As of the time I'm writing this blog, I think I've put around five or six hours into it. Not a lot, but enough to get a good feel for what the game offers—and it's not much. Honestly, I'm shocked. The original hit consoles back in 2007, and in the three years or so since that time, the developers behind the sequel don't seem to have advanced the formula nor really changed all that much. In fact, it might even be seen as a step backwards.

I'm quite surprised to report that the variety and creativity in the sequel are sorely lacking, and it's not like the series had all that much to spare in the first place. Even so, it strikes me as extremely repetitive, shallow, and not even up to the experience offered the first time around.

I haven't finished the game yet, but at this point I'm sort of dreading it. I heard from other critics that there's nothing to look forward to except more repetition, and I'm kind of wondering how the game got to its final state without someone raising their hand and questioning the proceedings.

There's a story behind it (of course) but the bottom line is that it doesn't stack up very favorably to current standards regardless of the reason... I'll cut it some slack, but there's only so much to cut when hour 1 is exactly the same as hour 6, and neither is as enjoyable as the source material.

Conclusion Protocol

Alpha Protocol Screenshot

Just a quick one tonight. I actually had a list of six or eight topics I wanted to discuss, but I'm currently juggling a little bit more than I usually do, and there just aren't enough hours in the day.

Anyway, I just finished Alpha Protocol a few minutes ago and I have to say that my opinion of the game greatly improved by the time credits rolled. However, I do have to qualify that statement:

As readers of this blog will remember, my initial playthrough was a giant mess of issues and the whole project felt like a colossal disaster. It was only thanks to some coaching from friends via Twitter that I was able to appreciate the finer points of agent Mike Thorton's mission, and I can certainly understand anyone walking away from this game with a bitter taste in mouth. However, after seeing the thing through from start to finish, I certainly think that there are plenty of bits to appreciate for a player who can get past all the problems.

In case you're considering giving the game a whirl, let me share my learnings with you.

The proper way to enjoy Alpha Protocol:

Once you're on this track, it's much easier to endure past the unpleasant sections and keep the game moving in order to see its better sides—things like a few instances of really interesting mission design, ambitious effort to craft a story that doesn't involve any (okay, well not ALL) of the usual RPG tropes, and a few parts that really make a player think thanks to in-game consequences and repercussions. Unfortunately, that's a lot of hoops to ask a player to jump through, and (like I did) it's all too easy to make different choices and end up playing the game in a way that is comparable to a bad trip to the dentist.

While on the topic of Alpha Protocol, it was announced today that any hopes of an improved sequel were taken off the table. As of right now, this franchise is dead.

While I can absolutely understand that decision, I have to admit feeling a bit sad about it. There are some genuinely great moments to be found in the game, and despite all its problems (and Lord, there are many) I can't help but think that the developers were on the right track to creating something that should have been much greater than it was.

I can't deny that the game dug its own grave, but other, lesser titles have gone on to spawn a sequel or two. It's a shame that one that seems to hold so much potential won't get a much-needed chance to grow.